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The Ticking Bomb of US Economy

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Horace CampbellBy Horace Campbell*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

SYRACUSE (IDN) - Since September 15, 2008 the United States economy has been like a ticking time bomb with the unregulated activities of the banks – the fuse that is slowly burning. This fuse has affected the international banking system and while citizens of the United States are focused on an electoral contest, the issues of the future of the U.S banking system, the future of the dollar and the future of the Euro are bringing home the reality of the capitalist depression.

On April 30, 2012, (Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman released a book entitled, End this Depression Now. This book sought to galvanize action by the US government to stimulate the economy based on the twentieth century Keynesian ideas of stimulating growth. Increasingly, it is becoming clearer that far more drastic political measures will be needed if the international financial system is to be protected from the gambling of the top bankers in the United States. Wealth creation and a new economic system are needed to meet the needs of human beings.

This reality was brought home May 10 when it was revealed the J. P Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States had been involved in the most risky type of speculative trading that was not supposed to be undertaken by a federally insured depository institution. The nature of the speculative trading is still covered up by the media but from what has been coming out there were bets placed by a derivative trader who was placing US$100billion bets that the US economy would recover. One report called the operation ’trades in the synthetic derivatives hedging business.’

Whether this is the real cause of the attention to JP Morgan Chase will only come to light when the media and the representatives of the people call for the removal of Jamie Dimon, the CEO of this bank, and take over the bank. While the information on the $3 billion loss is as opaque as the business world of the financial system, the nature of the risk that was being undertaken is reserved exclusively for the big banks and offers multi- million dollar profits in this ether world that is called financial capitalism.

JPMorgan Chase is currently one of the biggest banks in the world supposedly with $2.1 trillion in assets and more than 239,000 employees. I used the word ‘supposedly’ because JP Morgan Chase was one of the recipients of more than$26 billion of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the American International Group (AIG) in September 2008. Troubled Assets was the term coined by the US government to hide from the world the state of the insolvency of the US banking system where the big banks had overextended themselves in the housing bubble issuing what was then called mortgage backed securities. These banks are still mired in the toxic mess from the orgy of speculation of that era and JP Morgan compounded its own risky position by taking over the bad bank, Washington Mutual.

The Bank JP Morgan Chase grew bigger and riskier after absorbing two of the failed banks at the centre of the MBS debacle. JPS acquired Bears Stearns and Washington Mutual. Hence on top of its own involvement in the casino economy, JP Morgan Chase had taken on two failed banks in an attempt to save the US financial system.

The Tarp instrument was the means through which the US government had 'bailed out' the banks and investment houses in 2008. JP Morgan Chase was involved in the same credit default swaps (CDS) that was at the core of the gambling that brought down the system in 2008. The speculative activities of the Banks have increased since 2008 and now the press is seeking to lay the blame on one derivatives trader in London.

According to the media, speculation by a derivatives trader in London has produced a $2 billion trading loss for JP Morgan Chase. It is still not clear the extent of the loss but we know that it is in the same category as the losses at MF Global last year. These losses add to the scandal after scandal and are supposed to be on par with the other debacles of 2008 when two major Wall Street institutions, Bear Stearns and then Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. This year the progressive forces must renew the call for the nationalization of the big banks which are supposed to be too big to fail.

The Arrogance of the Big Banks

The rise and impending collapse of J P Morgan Chase is a cautionary tale about the fortunes (or currently misfortunes ) of the US banking system. Older readers will remember the name Chase Manhattan Bank and the era when David Rockefeller and this bank stood at the apex of US capitalism. Today Chase Manhattan no longer exists and has been absorbed through the mergers and acquisitions of the years of neo-liberal capitalism. Then there was the other major US capitalist whose fortunes were made when there were the most brutal forms of exploitation of workers.

This was the banker and industrialist, John Pierpont Morgan. The career of JP Morgan was symbolic of the merger of industrial and bank capital to create financial capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Today at the start of the 21st century JP Morgan Chase is the result of the combination of several large US banking companies over the last decade including Chase Manhattan Bank, J.P. Morgan & Co., Bank One, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Going back further, the predecessors of the current banking behemoth include major banking firms among which are Chemical Bank, Manufacturers Hanover, First Chicago Bank, National Bank of Detroit, Texas Commerce Bank, Providian Financial and Great Western Bank.

JP Morgan Chase is a textbook case of what happened to US banks during the era of neo-liberalism when the Glass Steagall Act was repealed separating investment banking from federally insured deposit banks. Much attention has been paid to the two poster children of the new casino type operators who claim to be bankers, Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. These two are just at the top of the massive political structure that squeezes the mass of the citizens of the world for the top 1 per cent. In the book ‘13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown’, the authors Simon Johnson and James Kwak have detailed the evolution of the neo-liberal world that was spun by these bankers.

According to Johnson and Kwak, the bankers created new money machines with new schemes such as securitization, high yield debt, arbitrage trading and derivatives. On top of these serial innovations we now have a new one called value at risk. Later we will be told what is synthetic derivatives hedging business. These "serial innovations created the new money machines that fueled the rapid, massive growth in the size, profitability and wealth of the financial sector over the last three decades."

The fraud of the so called stress tests

It is the accrued power of these bankers that now threatens the global system of capitalism. After the tremors of the financial markets in 2008 these same banks that called for deregulation called for bail outs because they were too big to fail. For a while, there had been word of the depth of the hole in other banks and we are still waiting for the information on Bank of America which is still under wraps with Wikileaks. Only two months ago, the Federal Reserve completed a “stress test” of the 19 largest US banks, which gave all of them a green light in terms of solvency and approved increased dividends or stock buybacks for 15 of the 19 banks. This exposure of JP Morgan exposes the fraud of the so called stress tests.

Although the banking system was propped up and we are informed in the media that these banks recently passed 'stress tests,' the news about the risky bets of JP Morgan is a stark reminder that the time bomb is ticking. Since that fateful week in September 2008, far from resolving the crisis of the US financial system, the bailout of Wall Street that had been orchestrated by the Federal government has resulted in a further centralization of financial assets in a handful of giant institutions that dominate American society.

The further centralization now means that five of the 13 banks – JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs – held $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011. The big five have increased their viselike grip on the US economy over the past five years: in 2006, their financial holdings amounted to 43 percent of US gross domestic product. By the end of 2011, that figure had risen to 56 percent.

[. . . ] Sober elements understand that the banks must be broken up and this was stated explicitly in the annual report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The letter from the head of the Dallas Federal Reserve is entitled, 'Choosing the Road to Prosperity Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now'. In this letter, Richard Fisher from the Dallas Federal Reserve argues that the situation of the bf banks is a disaster in waiting. Fisher would force the big banks to reorganize and get much smaller. And he would require “harsh and non-negotiable consequences” for any bank that ends in trouble and seeks government aid, including removal of its leaders, replacement of its board, voiding all compensation and bonus contracts and clawing back any bonus compensation for the two previous years.

It is now understood by these sober elements in the USA that the Big Banks may be not only too big to fail, but also too big to save.

The politicians in the USA are compromised and refuse to see the reality. It is the task of the progressive forces to keep the discussions on the JP Morgan losses on the table in order to educate the people on the nature of the depression. The major media houses such as the New York Times are attempting to manage this story saying that this $3-4 billion loss is a drop in the bucket. From the financial papers there is the buzz that one's loss is another person's gain. This is cold comfort to the poor all over the world who are suffering in the midst of this depression. In 2008 the government socialized the losses while the profits were privatized. The bailout was one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poor of the world to the rich. These bankers now need another bail out and the US government will have to increase the debt ceiling.

For the moment the Occupy Wall Street Movement has made it impossible for the government to bail out the banks again. However, far from bailing out the bankers, speculators such as Corzine of MF Global and Jamie Dimon should be prosecuted. It is not enough to say that what JP Morgan was doing was inappropriate from a federally insured depository institution. It is time for the people to call for these banks to be taken over and the big bankers removed.

It is now time for audacity and more audacity. Nationalization and political education at the moment is more important than the elections. Bankers like JP Morgan profit from war and these forces want another big war so that the capitalists can recover. The peace and justice forces must be more vigilant. The JP Morgan Chase debacle heightens the desperation of the top one per cent in the USA.

*Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University in Syracuse New York. He is a noted Pan African Scholar and writer. From his early years in Jamaica, Campbell has been involved in the Liberation Struggle and in the struggles for peace and justice. From his years in Toronto, Canada to his sojourns in Africa (Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe), the United Kingdom and the Caribbean, he has been an influential force, offering alternatives to the hegemonic ideas of Eurocentrism. This is an abridged version of an article that appeared on Pambazuka News. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 24, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: Horace Campbell | Credit: horacecampbell.net

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